Nicholas Alexandrovich Berdyaev

Nicholas Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) was a Russian Philosopher and religious thinker. He was a leading exponent of Christian existentialism and bridged the gap between religious thought in Russia and the West.

Nicholas Berdyaev was born on March 19, 1874, in Kiev of noble parents (his grandfather had been a leader of the Don Cossacks). At the age of 12 he entered the Kiev Cadet Corps, a school for future officers of the emperor's Life Guard. He hated military life and 6 years later transferred to Kiev University, where he became a radical Marxist and a political activist. He left his aristocratic family and in 1898 was expelled from the University, arrested, and sentenced to 2 years of banishment in Vologda, in northern Russia.

It was during this period, a time of great intellectual activity, that Berdyaev broke with the Marxists. He read widely in philosophy and began a lifelong association with the Orthodox Church. After his release he traveled to Heidelberg in 1903 for further study. The next year he met his future wife, Lydia Tushev, and in 1905 they moved to St. Petersburg. There Berdyaev became a leader among the capital's intellectuals and was especially prominent in the salons of the Russian symbolists. His reputation in Russia was assured by his 1907 article in the anthology Milestones.

His attacks on the institution of the Holy Synod would have caused him serious trouble had the Revolution not interrupted proceedings against him. Although he at first welcomed the Revolution, he became increasingly anti-Bolshevik. In 1921 he served as professor of philosophy at Moscow University, but the following year his public criticism of the Soviets led to deportation. In September 1922 he left Russia forever. He first settled in Berlin (1922-1924), where he was president of the Russian Religious-Philosophical Academy, and then in Paris. The story of his life in France can be summed up by the long list of books which he wrote during this period. In 1924 he published the book which first brought him fame in Europe, The New Middle Ages. In 1926 he founded the influential journal, The Way, which he edited until 1939.

While continuing as head of his academy in Paris, he also wrote Freedom and the Spirit (1927), Solitude and Society (1934), and Slavery and Freedom (1939).

The German occupation was a harsh time for Berdyaev, although he was not arrested. On March 4, 1948, he died of a heart attack while at work on his last book, The Realm of the Spirit and the Realm of Caesar.

Further Reading on Nicholas Alexandrovich Berdyaev

Of the books in English on Berdyaev, only a small number may be recommended to the general reader. Donald Lowrie, Rebellious Prophet: A Life of Nicolai Berdyaev (1960), is the best biography. Michel Vallon, An Apostle of Freedom: Life and Teachings of Nicolas Berdyaev (1960), includes a relatively detailed biography and, in the second half of the book, a comparatively lucid exposition of Berdyaev's basic ideas. M. Spinka, Nicholas Berdyaev, Captive of Freedom (1950), succeeds in putting Berdyaev into a helpful historical and European focus. Less helpful are Evgueny Lampert, Nicolas Berdyaev and the New Middle Ages (1945); Edgar Leonard Allen, Freedom in God: A Guide to the Thought of Nicholas Berdyaev (1950); Oliver Fielding Clarke, Introduction to Berdyaev (1950); and George Seaver, Nicolas Berdyaev: An Introduction to His Thought (1950).

Additional Biography Sources

Lowrie, Donald A. (Donald Alexander), 1889-1974, Rebellious prophet; a life of Nicolai Berdyae, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press 1974, 1960.